Thank You for Not Reading by Dubravka Ugresic
I don't know Dubravka Ugresic's other work (not her Charles Veillon European Essay prize winning The Culture of Lies nor her In the Jaws of Life nor her highly commended The Museum of Unconditional Surrender), but it has just risen right to the top off my must-buy list. Thank You For Not Reading (Dalkey) is one of the most enjoyable, biting and funny collection of non-fiction essays I've read in a good long while (nearly as good, but very different, is stablemate Nicholas Mosley's The Uses of Slime Mould).
I had thought that Ugresic's collection was going to focus entirely on the state of the contemporary publishing industry and book trade - on why publishers publish so many bad books and why readers read comparatively few good ones and whether (and how) those essential but, we are told, outmoded value judgements still make any sense in the marketplace when we are discussing book products, when literature is a commodity and all our responses to it already always commodified. Most of the first fifteen or so essays are about this state-of-affairs - sometimes rather elliptical, often funny, sometimes a little too neat, Ugresic's short essay's (the first two sections consisting almost entirely of essays that are just three or four pages long) often return to the compelling point that the enforced artistic weltanschauung of the socialist (sic) Yugoslavia of her childhood has curious and striking similarities with the stupefying culture of market-imposed values. (Ugresic is Croation, but thinks of herself as a Yugoslav - Yugoslavia, of course, no longer exists.)
It is perhaps here that Ugresic's perceptions are at their most profound - she realises that democracy is merely an expression of the market, that the socialist system she grew up in was a form of capitalism, that East and West, whilst marked by profound differences, always had essential correlations. War is War and House Spirits both further tease out the parallels between the idiocy of the practice of socialist hegemony and the parodic lie which is the freedom of the market: neither system as system can cope with the irruption of complexity that is art.
The centrepiece long essay (only 22 pages long, but longer than anything else here), The Writer in Exile, is peppered with many quotes from fellow exile and essayist Joseph Brodsky, and is Ugresic at her best. Puncturing the posturing of her fellow writers and intellectuals - she is both self-deprecating and often rightly harshly condemnatory of other practitioners of her craft - she asks difficult questions that she moves towards answering only by the shapes of her next questions.